Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Abuja

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
May 28, 2015

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you so much, and thanks, guys. Sorry for the delay; I was stuck in another meeting. Very shortly, I’m going to turn it over to another senior State Department official. So you all know, it’s [Senior State Department Official Two]. We’ll both be on background here as senior State Department officials. [Senior State Department Official Two] will speak a little bit about our visit to Nigeria. And just so folks know, all background on the Geneva stuff, and then we’ll do backgrounders for the other stuff on the road.

Just a few comments from me, and then I’ll turn it over to [Senior State Department Official Two]. For those of you who remember in January when Secretary Kerry went to Nigeria during the run-up to the election, he met with both President Jonathan and then-candidate Buhari. And for those of you who there who remember the coverage, one of the main messages he took then was that they – despite the violence and the security situation, they needed to go ahead with the election, even if there was a slight delay – which, as folks know, there ended up being – but they needed to go ahead with the election; they needed to do it in a credible way; and that both of them needed to abide by whatever results came to pass. And it was a very strong message that he delivered then. It was a quick trip, but I think we felt a very productive one.

And then we’ve seen what’s happened since then with the election and with the handover of power, and this really culminates Secretary Kerry’s work on that particular issue with his leading the delegation to the inauguration swearing-in ceremony for President Buhari. He will attend the swearing-in with the rest of the delegation. The White House sent out the whole delegation list as well, so folks should have that. He’ll then attend a lunch, and then he’ll have a one-on-one meeting with President Buhari. So this really, again, for the Secretary has been an issue that he’s been focused on, and really the culmination of work we did during the visit both in January, but then with the Nigerians since then as well.

So with that, I think I’ll turn it over to [Senior State Department Official Two], and then we’d be happy to take some questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official One]. Certainly, the Secretary’s visit in January was much appreciated by Nigerians and I think it really helped amplify our message thereafter. He issued a couple of statements, including joint statements with his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Hammond, that were broadly distributed. He spoke later to candidates. The President did a video later that was very broadly circulated; had millions of views, and that certainly did help continue to get our message out, and this is a great culmination for him to lead the delegation back to the inauguration.

In particular, the electoral commission and Chairman Jega really deserve a lot of credit, and they’ve actually shared a lot of credit with us and with the Secretary for his message about nonviolence and about a credible and peaceful election. And obviously, the credit mostly goes to the Nigerians, but we’re quite happy to have played a role. And our development colleagues at AID and at the mission, they remind us that we’ve done technical assistance with INEC and political parties and others since the return to civilian rule in 1999, so we have been at this for quite a long time, and the Secretary’s engagement’s been immensely helpful.

The other major change in the last few months in addition to this peaceful election and now a peaceful transfer of power that’s unprecedented is what’s happened in Boko – with Boko Haram. The government and the army have made great advances. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done and there are still Boko Haram attacks, but they’re sort of bottled up in Sambisa Forest. They don’t control anything like the vast area that they did just a few months ago. And so that dynamic has changed, and there’s an opportunity to do a real stabilization effort in the Northeast, but that will require really a concerted effort.

And I think finally, [Senior State Department Official One] mentioned the meeting that the Secretary will have. We’ve worked very closely with Nigeria for many years. We look forward to working very closely with President Buhari and his administration. Having won the election and getting through the inauguration and the peaceful transfer, now he has the reward of any winning candidate of getting to govern. And we know he’s interested in sorting out things like corruption and putting in place law and order, trying to create a better system of accountability and transparency. These are all things that we have worked with Nigeria and we want to continue to work with them. He has to improve and expand electricity, delivery, and Power Africa is an area we have already worked with Nigeria.

We could do a lot more. There’s a presidential initiative, PEPFAR, the AIDS program – the President’s AIDS program is the largest in the world in Nigeria, and Nigeria has a big challenge caring for Nigerians with AIDS in the coming decades, and we know that is an important part of governance. Trade and investment is on the agenda. It’s the largest economy in Africa. We know American companies are interested in exporting to Nigeria and investing in Nigeria. On the security side, another presidential initiative is the Security Governance Initiative, and we look forward to working with the new team and figuring out what areas we should work on together on security sector reform.

So we really have a busy agenda. It’s been a really robust partnership with the country and we think we can really grow it with the new government. And I think I’ll just leave it there and see about questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Operator, James, let’s go to the first question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if anyone would like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in queue. You can remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the pound key. If you using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if anyone would like to ask a question, please press *1 at any time to get into the question queue.

The first question is coming from the line of Michael Gordon with The New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, I have a question. The U.S.-Nigerian military cooperation is not necessarily everything it might be for a whole variety of reasons, with a new president – there’s a new president now, and also there is a technical assistance relationship between ISIL and Boko Haram. So is Secretary Kerry going to approach his meeting with the new president as a opportunity to seek to expand U.S.-Nigerian cooperation in the security spheres, particularly since you pointed to the opportunity to do stabilization in the northwest, and the fact that it would require a concerted effort?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think that’s exactly right. Certainly, the ISIL development and declaration of allegiance is something we have to follow, but Boko Haram in its own right has been destabilizing in the region. It’s been largely an indigenous extremist organization to that border region in the northeastern part of Nigeria. We have done quite a lot in particular since the very notorious, now infamous Chibok kidnapping more than a year ago. Boko Haram was violent long before that, but they certainly increased their activities with that incident and then in the subsequent months. We certainly hope to be able to do more. We were training a battalion in the fall. We were doing other things with the army. And we’re still doing some things, but we have quite a lot on offer, and believe from the Buhari team, the advisors during the transition, that they’re quite interested in working with us and meeting some of our requirements.

Obviously, as you know, there’s human rights requirements and Leahy vetting and those kinds of things, but those are manageable things that we can work out so that we can work together. And we believe they’re going to cooperate with us as a full partner on that.

QUESTION: Well, is there something you can tell us about how you hope to expand that cooperation? What do you plan to do? What do you want to do?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, we don’t want to be too proscriptive in our discussions. We have a range of things – the Security Governance Initiative is very broad. Certainly, training in any number of areas is a possibility. Something we can do quickly is to send advisors, and advisors can be in a number of different areas. It could be related to intelligence; it could be something very simple, related to things like logistics. If you follow the news reporting, any military – but certainly the Nigerian military, as it extends further afield, has challenges with its supply lines. And that’s something that the U.S. military has expertise in. Things like administration, things like military justice and accountability – these kinds of things are all things that we’re considering. And we want to make sure and prioritize based on what President-elect Buhari and his top military team needs.

QUESTION: Last question: Are there any advisors there now, or would this be a new initiative?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We have had a number of advisors there, and we’ve had fact sheets over the year related to an interdisciplinary team that was initially sent out related to the Chibok girls’ kidnapping. And in Abuja and in the neighboring countries we’ve had a variety of advisors doing different things. But what I’m talking about would be continuing that but also --

QUESTION: You have, or – I thought you had.


QUESTION: You have, or you had?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We have had; we – that we continue to have advisors there. And we would – what I’m talking about would be new advisors in areas where we would expand.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Okay. And once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you want to ask a question, please press *1. The next question is coming from Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I want to follow up on what Michael was saying. Are you getting any sense, then, that the relationship between the U.S. and the military in Nigeria is going to be vastly different under Buhari as opposed to under Goodluck Jonathan when there seem to be a lot of tensions over – nobody wants anybody to dictate to the Nigerians, and number two, with the human rights issue?

And then number two, the next big issue, obviously, is the economy. You’ve got electricity issues, as you mentioned, but you’ve also got an economy that isn’t growing as fast and has taken quite a dive in recent months. What kinds of things are you going to offer as far as Power Africa or any other kinds of incentive – economic measures that could boost the economy?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, on the first question, again, we have every indication in our conversations with President-elect Buhari that he’s interested in a close relationship. In the run-up to the elections, which we knew would be – we thought would be closely contested, this is pretty well documented that there was a strain in our relationship, particularly with the army on military cooperation. And we have every indication that we’ll be able to start a new chapter. We have a long history with the Nigerian military; we’ve been training their peacekeepers for a long time. We have a good ongoing relationship with the navy and the Special Boat Service. You may have seen the second vessel – it’s – the Nigerians call it The Okpabana – that sailed into Lagos, I think back in January. So we have this very good relationship with the military over time. With regard to Boko Haram and the army and training of the 143rd in the fall, we ran into some difficulties. But we think we can pretty quickly get back on track.

In terms of the economy, there’s so many different factors. The oil price decline is sort of the headline, and that’s very important for foreign exchange earnings and for government revenue, but the petroleum sector represents actually only 15 percent of the overall economy. So this is an economy that has really diversified. And American business interest is – certainly the oil majors are still interested in oil and gas, and power will continue to be important. But there are interest in many other sectors, in services and manufacturing and consumer goods and those kinds of things. And much of our work with Nigeria would be to point them toward a more – certainly a level playing field. We think if they were more open to investment, if they are able to tackle corruption and improve rule of law and respect of contracts and those kinds of things, they’ll get more investment. And I think that will drive growth in the future as they rely less and less on their oil industry.

We’d certainly like them to be a leader within the region, within ECOWAS, in terms of economic integration. We think we can help with that if they’re willing. They’ve been a major AGOA country, but that’s been – the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act country. Much of that has been in the oil and gas sector, but this is – again, it’s a huge and growing population – very young population. If they can get infrastructure headed in the right direction, which will require billions of dollars in investment, this is an economy that, as it opens, can attract a lot more trade and investment.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. It seems like this will conclude our call. Thanks, everyone, for joining, and thanks to our speakers. Just a reminder that this call is on background, attributable State Department – Senior State Department Officials. And we’ll see you all shortly. Thank you.